These days, most everybody agrees that the use of body-worn cameras by police is a good thing. Without these body cams, we might not be privy to a whole host of situations, whether it involves excessive use of force by police or it shows police restraint and professionalism. Contrary to what some think it shows both. To my way of thinking, the presence of body-worn cameras by police has brought a level of transparency and accountability that’s been absolutely necessary.
In the last few months, lawmakers in New Jersey required all police departments to equip their officers with body cameras and also provided the resources to help departments achieve compliance. The Attorney General’s office drilled down further and provided policies and guidance with regard to the use of the cameras as well as the video produced by these devices.
The City of Bridgeton has been ahead of that curve, equipping police vehicles with video capabilities as far back as 2009 and officers with body-worn cameras in 2016. That said, one part of the new guidance coming out of the Attorney General’s Office that is concerning involves what police cannot do—review the video from their body-worn camera “prior to creating any required initial reports, statements, and interviews regarding the recorded event.” This has the feel of a “gotcha” moment.
We know how unreliable eyewitness memories can be, including that of police officers. Line up 10 people to an incident and you’ll get 10 different accounts of what occurred. And that’s in calm moments. Try it in the heat of a moment, when all hell is breaking loose, and you’ve basically got a story that may or may not be what actually occurred.
When it comes to creating a record of what occurred—which is the one main purposes of a police report—why should officers be prohibited from checking their recollections with the video from their body-worn cameras? We want as much accuracy as possible and police officers should be able to utilize this tool to achieve the greatest degree of accuracy.
Yet, they’re prohibited from using this tool and it has much the same feel as when police advise suspects that anything they say may be used against them in a court of law. What an officer writes or doesn’t write in his or her initial report may be used against them, whether in a court of law or court of public opinion. Even if they do a second report, initial reports get picked apart against the body cam video in an effort to impeach credibility.
We clamor for transparency and accuracy and so we should, especially when it comes to policing. In speaking with officers locally, they point to the utter chaos that occurred recently in the mass shooting that occurred at a house party in Fairfield Township with hundreds of people running for cover trying to get away from the shooter. In the aftermath of such an incident, I don’t want the officers speculating if they don’t have to.
We want as much accuracy as possible as quickly as possible. If viewing the video from body-worn cameras will allow officers to be more certain of the details, then this should be something we strive for on every call. I hope those crafting the guidance will reconsider what seems like an unnecessary hurdle to accurate police work.